Yousuf Karsh portraits...comments on his techniques... : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

If I get this loaded correctly you will be looking at portraits of Frank Lloyd Wright and General Pershing, photographed by Yousuf Karsh...

Would anyone like to comment on the techniques of one of the truly great classical portrait photographers? What was his lighting set-up? What filters are used? Is there a book available on Karsh's style of portraiture?

Any and all comments are welcomed and appreciated, as always... -Dave

-- Dave Richhart (, September 02, 2000


Dave: Frank Lloyd Wright's portrait is lit with the "T" or "arrowhead" lighting layout. A strong light is placed to the side and slightly to the rear of the subject and high, and a weaker light beside the camera. A fourth light may be used to lighten the background very slightly (I don't see it used here) and at times a hair light was used. Filters were not used, but Ortho film was often used on men. Gen. Pershing's portrait was lit with the main light on the right side of the picture, with a lesser fill light on the right. A background light of low intensity was used and I believe the background burned in to leave the slight line. An overhead light was directed to the hands and hair. I saw an exhibition of Karsh's portraits a few years ago, and it was magnificent. What was amazing was that his portraits of Krushev, taken in Russia with a Rollieflex, still had the skin tones and sheen on the skin as does the 8x10 shots. I believe these two shots you showed are made with the 8x10 camera and 14" lens. Along with the exhibition was a video tape of Karsh making a portrait, which showed the arrowhead lighting with spot lights. The rest is pure talent.



-- Doug Paramore (, September 02, 2000.

Dave: Sorry. The lighting for Gen. Pershing should read "a strong light to the right side of the camera and slightly high and a weaker fill light to the left of the camera.


-- Doug Paramore (, September 02, 2000.

Hi Dave, I've got another question to go with yours. What would be an afordable portable light to achive these results, and could you use a small flash for the soft light? I mean, I know they are lights, but how big are they in terms of watts or size or cost? Thanks

-- david clark (, September 02, 2000.

I should give credit to the "George Eastman House". I "borrowed" these scans from their wonderful website at It's a great website that everyone should check out.... - Dave

-- Dave Richhart (, September 02, 2000.

Note to David C. Most of the studio hot lights were either 500 or 1,000 watts. You can get nearly the same effect with electronic flash without umbrellas. Use a layer of cheese cloth to smooth out the light just a tiny bit. This may sound funny, but it seems hot lights stay on the surface of the skin and give a smoother sheen, whereas electronic flash penetrates the surface of the skin. I am not the first photographer who has noticed this effect. However, electronic flash can be just about as good and it is certainly easier on the subject. You can't seem to get the sparkle on the skin tones with umbrellas or soft boxes, as that is their purpose. They smooth out the skin and eliminate a lot of retouching. To answer your question, the small flash will work for fill or background light.

Good Shooting,

-- Doug Paramore (, September 02, 2000.

Dave: I'll get this right yet. I was in too big of a hurry and didn't proof my answer as I should have. The arrowhead lighting on Frank Lloyd Wright's portrait uses TWO lights to the side and slightly to the rear, one on each side. Sorry for the errors.


-- Doug Paramore (, September 02, 2000.

Just a guess: Looks like Pyro was used, as well as a fair amount of retouching by hand probably with a pencil on the negs.

One aspect of Karsh's portrait of note is the emphasis on the lighting the subject's hands separately. He felt that the hands are a very integral part of the subject's character. You can see this in the two pictures you posted. (In Pershing's portrait, there is one light gunning at the hands from behind to the left of the viewer), On the whole, the lighting is fairly hard which is why on negative retouching is required.

One book to see is "Karsh : A Sixty-Year Retrospective" he has two others I believe. I have this one. Some of the lighting schemes (not detailed in the book) were really amazing.

-- KH Tan (, September 03, 2000.

Thanks for the thoughts guys... There are several dozen Karsh portraits, as well as well as many other photographs from great photographers to be seen at the George Eastman House website at It is a "MUST SEE" website!

Doug...thanks for the ideas... I too had the opportunity to see about 100 Karsh portraits in an exhibit. There just isn't anything like seeing the actual poster-sized photographs!!! -Dave

-- Dave Richhart (, September 03, 2000.

From a dissenter. I can't deny the strength of the photos but in the long run am not impressed by someone who approaches every subject in the exact same way. It's the difference between the mystic-who impresses their will on life-and the poet-who lets it run through him or her: interpreting; guiding; but respecting and loving and being amazed at the world as it presents itself. Shouldn't some portraits be light-hearted; some serious;some bright; some dark; what is the personality and so on. More technically; some in-close; some showing the figure in the environment; some from the side; from above; from below; whatever. Karsh could photograph my next door neighbor and he or she would look like Gandhi or Sir Edmund Hillary or Albert Schweitzer or Bernard Baruch or Queen Elizabeth. Doesn't make sense to me. The oft-praised concept of STYLE reveals limitations as much as successes.

-- David Stein (, September 03, 2000.

David, it seems to me your criticism is that Karsh isn't Arnold Newman, or Eliott Erwitt, etc. It is like complaining that Rembrandt never made gay paperdoll cutouts like Matisse. Karsh is KARSH; he makes formal portraits. IMHO your thoughtful criticism, while valid, isn't fair. A more common criticism is that he uses cookie-cutter lighting, making everyone look Olympian. If true he does it better than anyone else ever has. We should all look so good.

-- Bill Mitchell (, September 03, 2000.

I recall that Karsh once said that after the Einstein portrait, many of his subjects wanted to be photographed in a turtleneck, so in part the similarity might be somewhat subject driven. That said, I think Karsh's portraits show a lot of personality. The lighting style may be similar in these two images, but the subjects come off as quite different characters.

Now if one wanted to say that all of Avedon's subjects look the same, that would be another story. Conversely, one might say that Martin Schoeller is so eclectic in his portraits that he comes across as an incredible virtuoso capable of evoking a variety of moments in the history of photography with great success (check out his portfolio in the Aug. 21/28, 2000 issue of The New Yorker), without establishing one style (unless eclecticism itself is taken as a "style"--and perhaps it should be) as truly his own.

-- David Goldfarb (, September 03, 2000.

I agree with Bill Mitchell. Would these be better portraits if Karsh had taken them out to a shack, smeared cow dung on their suits and faces and lit them with direct flash? Would they then have been "portraits from life?" by a gifted photographer? Why not stand them in front of a white sheet and let the subject stand straight on and stare into the lens. Maybe if they were teenagers, Karsh could shoot their faces closeup with a sharp lens and see all the blemishes in living color. If you really want to see just how much better Karsh was than the average photographer, look at the black and white pictures of your ancestors.

-- Doug Paramore (, September 03, 2000.

I think that you need to remember that you are looking at commissioned work which I am sure was not inexpensive...and when someone paid for a Karsh portrait he expected a Karsh portrait in return.

I just love to see these types of discussions on this forum. {:^D

-- Dave Richhart (, September 04, 2000.

Actually, the celebrity portraits were done at Karsh's expense. On spec, so to speak.

-- Bill Mitchell (, September 04, 2000.

Dave, by raising this issue you have reminded us what photography is all about. Thanks for raising this issue and to the respondents for your informative and stimulating thoughts. I had begun thinking that this forum should be renamed the "LF Photography Hardware Forum". I look forward to more of this kind of issue and dialogue. PS: great scans, thanks.

-- Julio Fernandez (, September 09, 2000.

frank does have a background light behind him. those who cannot appreciate karsh's genius have been brainwashed by the "only the ugly is art" school. have a nice day. will kill eminem for food.

-- George Gunnell (, February 24, 2001.

I'd like to make a comment on Karsh's image of General Pershing, It looks like to me that he is using a stong, harsh light, some distance from the subject (from the right of the viewer), slightly raised above the subjects eye. There is another light that is coming in at almost 90 degrees to the left of the subject to light his hands, however, it looks like hes used cutters to protect the face. To emphasize the head and shoulders from the background, he has used a very soft background light (probably 3 stops different from every other light in the image (either that, or hes a darkroom genius). Id just like to make a comment about what everyone else has said about the two images, and Karsh's style for that matter. It is very rare for two people to look at an image in the exact same way, when i was at uni, they taught us to accept others opinions, and try to see it from their perspective, as well as your own. For all those who think that Karsh's style is repetitive, and even 'old', his use of theatrical lighting styles is what makes him so popular, and such a legend, he found his niece in the market and has done well from it.

-- Aaron Francis (, March 23, 2001.

"....he found his niece in the market and has done well from it."

Where were her parents?

-- Sean yates (, March 23, 2001.

Mr. Karsh has been my photographic idol for many years. A photographers depth and perception is weighed by one thing and that is the ability to produce an image on film which portrays the spirit, strength and personality of the person in front of his camera. I keep open on my desk in my studio, two books by Mr. Karsh. Not to try and copy but to inspire me...because when I complete a portrait session that uplifts me to the stars, I stop and thank them for the opportunity of having Yousuf Karsh as an early role model. Thank you.

-- larry le brun graham (, June 05, 2001.

I have been told, though I cannot confirm whether it is true or not, by a local Ottawa area pro photographer (Karsh was based in Ottawa) that the sheen on the subject's skin that is typical of Karsh is obtained by using --- hmmmm!! ---- Johnson's baby oil.

-- Nick Kanellos (, August 29, 2001.

One key element that is missing so far in how Karsh creates such remarkable quality in his images is that he often used toners in the print development process.

Selenium toners as well as "homemade" toners that he used can dramatically affect the overall print. Also don't forget that he was usually shooting with an 8X10 view camera which to this day will surpass anything on the market. In the case of photography "bigger is better".

An alternative to an 8X10 camera, that I have used many times to replicate the feel of this type of portraite is to use a little known Kodak product called Technical Pan 120.

Tech Pan is a difficult film to shoot and to process but the quality of the grain structure and skin tones that it produces are spectacular. Give it a try!

-- Andrew MacDonald (, November 30, 2001.

Dave all I want to know is: How the heck did you load the photographs, I would like to know so that if I have a problem I can show people on the forum.... BTW, I like the portraits, wasn't Karsh the one who made that famous Churchill portrait, where he took the cigar out of his mouth and got that wonderful expression? Take care.

-- Jorge Gasteazoro (, November 30, 2001.

This may be the wrong forum to ask this question. Would anyone know what the value of an original signed photo of a common person be worth. At any rate this is a digital copy of the 15x19 inch signed photo of my dad at fords. The picture of my dad was taken in a seperate room with lights on his face and vest it was then superimposed(sp) on the other negative of the foundery. hope this works it really doesn't do the original justice and by the way it is not for sale currently..... PHOTO/0001photo.html

-- Denis Dupuis (, December 30, 2001.

An aspect that has been missed here is the color temperature of the lights. When photographing the human skin, you have a surface rich in the yellow-red spectrum, both orthochromatic and panchromatic black and white films get a slightly higher, (greater) exposure than is presented by the meter. 'Hot' lights, a.k.a. theatrical lights are quartz ampules with tungsten filaments. They burn at 3200 degrees Kelvin and grow warmer (to the 3000 to 2800 degree Kelvin) range.

You also have the ability to use barndoors and most importantly, to use a 'leeko light'. This is a varaible-focus spotlight, (Fresnel and double convex condensers).

This enables one to acheive the high reflectivity seen on the skin.

Bogen monolights have a focusable spot strobe, 'gel-ing' the strobe will give greater effect than filtering the lens, (Roscoe gel).

Agfapan processed with Rodinal will give damn-near the quality of tec- pan and is a LOT easier to use. Print on FIBER BASE PAPER, Agfa (or for a colder-tone, Orental Seagull.

-- gary curtis miller of Baltimore Maryland (, January 31, 2002.

Photographers don't use large format cameras just to get fine grain extra detail, bellows corrections or ease of retouching. . Images taken with longer lenses on a large format provide an image quality that is not limited to fine grain or superb detail. I have a near grain free ultra sharp print taken by a friend on 120 with a 15omm lens next to a print of similar grain and detail shot on 4x5 with a 210mm (short for portrature) lens and there is just something special about the feeling of the print shot on

-- Paul Currier (, February 04, 2002.

David Stein's comment that Karsh seems to approach all his subjects in the same way brings to mind a methodological problem involved in lots of kinds of criticism--the artificial and unintended (by the artist) collection of many examples of his or her work in a single show, collection, publication, web site, etc. The inevitable result will be to draw attention to common threads of technique, style, or approach running through the artist's ouevre which would otherwise go largely unnoticed. Of course, something of Karsh's style was generally known, hence the subject-driven likenesses and expectations mentioned by David Goldfarb and by Dave himself, but this is a far cry from an exhibit or corpus of scores or hundreds of examples to be consumed within a brief period of time by viewer or reader--so of course one gets the impression of repetitiveness. I'll never forget the Roualt exhibit I saw at MOMA back in the 70s. Weren't Karsh's portraits meant to hang in isolation in private residences? Same for poetry, musical compositions, paintings, etc.

Let me just briefly respond to Julio's point that our site, were it not for discussions such as this one, might resemble an LF "hardware" forum. Hey, some of us would like to turn out some Karsh-quality work of our own, and the medium demands mastery of equipment, technique and materials. The technical side of Karsh's work is probably well hidden, but I have no doubt it existed. This forum is esp. valuable for those of us, like myself, who literally have no other way of refining technique beyond what basics you can learn--and learn imperfectly--from currently available handbooks. The sole object of "hardware" is to implement one's photographic vision, right?

Cheers to all, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, February 04, 2002.

I find this a very interesting and important line of discussion. What is so wonderful is that once we move beyond the objective (formats, lenses, lights, film etc. ad nauseum) we get to the heart of the matter... for some of us, photography is communication, and technique is language. Eloquence demands mastery of language. Thus the role of technique is to support communication of a message. We are all so used to glitzy, fresh, startling eye candy coming at us from everywhere that we can often do not see past the medium to get the message (if there is any - most of our image input today is to motivate us to purchase something).

So let's think again about Karsh. Like Adams, or Weston, his technique is superlative. The message? Are we so bored with his language that we fail to be receptive to his message? What is the point of his portraiture? Did he succeed?

I think so. Now then, let's stand on his shoulders and find our own true paths. Take from his technique, or abandon as we must. My thanks to all of you for contributing to this thought-provoking discussion.

-- Noel D. Kendall (, February 14, 2002.

Here is another "off the subject" question. I have what appears to be an original, signed Karsh photograph of Pope John XXXIII. It is on a very heavy matte-finish stock, and it looks as though the image was printed directly onto the stock (not glued on). There is a hand- stamped copyright notice - credit advice line "Karsh - Ottawa", and a hand written "No. 7" on the reverse side. It doesn't look like this photo was produced on a printing press, yet the stock seems much too thick to go through the normal wet development process. Does anyone have any idea how this might have been produced? Mahalo, Monte

-- Monte Reddick (, March 14, 2002.

Just a quick note to publish my thanks to those of you who have contributed points to this website. I am doing a project on John Hedgecoe at the moment, and the comparisons that I have been able to draw from this information have proved very helpful. Thank you once again!

-- Simon Stacpoole, Suffolk, UK (, March 17, 2002.

I have come across some original Karsh portraits - I want to try to reasearch them and their value a bit more.

Can anyone post helpful links/tips for info on Karsh photographs and/or their roughly estimated monetary worth?

Any help is greatly appreaciated, thank-you.

-- J. Smith (, March 21, 2002.

Hey J try to get on the Auction roadshow, this way you can show the prints and be on TV.....:-))

-- Jorge Gasteazoro (, March 21, 2002.

I recently acquired a,authenticated by the National Archives of Canada,as a black and white vintage print taken by YOUSOF KARSH in 1945 of the then Crown Princess Juliana and her three children while living in Ottawa during the German occupation of The Netherlands. Please read the Ottawa or Toronto Sun of March 25/2002.

Framed and signed by all the princesses and Crown Princess Juliana s well an additional personal message handwriiten by the Crown Princess.

I want to auction this of. Res. 416-469-0145 Bus. 416-391-7568 ( Toll Free 1-800-813-9776 )

-- Peter Crawford (, March 25, 2002.

I would just like to say that this website is cool and has been a big help to me. I am doing an essay on Karsh right now for gr.12 photography, I've learned a lot by looking at what you have to say. Also, I think Karsh was an amamzing photographer in the field that he chose, so I disagree with the people criticizing him. Anyway, have a good argument about it!

-- H. Gibson-Wood (, April 09, 2002.

I have been a fervent admirer of Karsh from the time I was 13 or 14. My admiration has not been diminished in the years since then.
In his autobiography (published in the 1960s), Karsh says that he was inspired by the way in which set designers and dramatic directors used light. That observation convinced him that one could achieve great effects through deliberate use of lighting. This is quite evident in his photographs.

To me, the magic of Karsh does not reside primarily in lighting or printing (masterful though these are). The true drama emerges from the personalities that he photographed, and his wonderful writing about them. I strongly encourage people to look at his book "Karsh Portfolio," and at his autobiography.

-- Kartik Pashupati (, April 12, 2002.

I have in my possesion the photo of Marshal Tito & R H Winters taken in 1967. The photo is not signed but I suspect it could be one of the Karsh's photos. How and where do I go to check up on this. 613-265-3793

-- Neven Elezovic (, May 13, 2002.

Hullo - I just came across this thread because I did a Google search to find out more about Yousuf Karsh since his death on Saturday made the news, and I had never heard of him. (Though of course, I recognized his pictures at once.)

It's very interesting to get a much wider perspective on someone than the minute of time in a news bulletin, and I'm fascinated by all the discussion of the techniques and the "ethics" (almost) of photographic art.

Thanks, y'all, for caring.

-- Lea Barker (, July 15, 2002.

I'm a little late on this thread but need some help. I'm a portrait photographer. Karsh had always been my favorite for the depth of his images. I shoot tungsten, Fresnels to be exact. What film should I be using for that Karsh look. Maybe TXP is a good start for over the counter stuff. But if there's something else I should try then please let me know. I'm limited to 120.

-- Joe Lacy (, September 20, 2002.

I knew Yousof and his wife Estrelita extrtemely well for many years. Yousuf was a delightful man of the old world. His cape and Italian hat that he crumpled when he removed it to say hello. His style and elegant continental manners made him very special in every way. I am especially fond of his wife who I haven't seen in years. I wish him a pleasant voyage to his new location. To his wife I send my best wishes. Sedona AZ

-- Norm Danoff (, September 25, 2002.

I was sad to see the passing of another great photographer that can never be replaced. I use to work at the camera store where the Karsh Studios did their purchasing and was always attentive to what they used, to make the pictures. I think what ever chemistry (Kodak Portriga, Selectol soft,selenium toner, greeen filters, polarizers) and product they used does not compare with the gentle character which reveals every line of expression from his subjects. I was fortunate to have talked with him in idle jest between floors at the Chateau Laurier and will always remember him as a person able to project some aging personal warmth.

-- Philip D. Owen (, October 01, 2002.

I was privileged to hear Mr Karsh lecture at a professional photographers convention in 1968. During the course of his lectures he fielded many questions from the audience about cameras, lens and all the other technical questions from the floor. He placed almost no emphasis on equipment of any sort, but on proper rapport with the subject.

I'm convinced that you gave him a Brownie Hawkeye camera, a roll of film and a decent darkroom, his work would shine through as always.

My two idols, Mr. Karsh and Adolph (Papa) Fassbender emphasized one thing, "See Light." They were both experts at seeing how to light a subject.

-- Bruce Johnson (, October 11, 2002.

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